i’m afraid salam dhaka gravely misunderstood my previous political rant. i was not commenting on privatization at all – rather i was talking about the development of the private sector, which, in itself, can be as separate from privatization than, well, night and day. but enough on private sector development. i have to pretend all day that i care about it, so i am in no mood to talk about it now.

however, on the issue of privatization, some aspects of bangladesh desperately need to be privatized. topping this list, of course, is biman. according to this article in the daily star, each biman flight from dhaka to new york currently incurs a loss of 35 lakh taka. that’s 50,000 in US$. twice a week. our government is pouring $100,000 a week into an aging dc-10 that may someday simply drop out of the sky. already this plane was refused permission to take off from new york a few months ago, because local engineers found 17 mechanical faults in the airline and deemed it to be too dangerous to be allowed to fly.

now, is it unreasonable to expect the authorities to shut down a route that incurs such losses? apparently. it seems to be so difficult to gain slots in new york that cancelling dhaka-new york flights would be unprofitable in the long run.



apparently it’s important to keep the existing slot, because biman caters to the 2 million ethnic bangladeshis living on the east coast of the united states and canada. well. last time i tried to get a ticket to or from the united states, biman was the most expensive economy class fare, much more so than british airways or emirates. heck, it would have been cheaper for me to fly northwest to geneva, swissair to delhi and indian air to dhaka than it would have cost for me to fly biman from new york to dhaka.

last time i actually flew biman to the united states, the plane was filled with the maximum possible amount of infants, who either screamed in unison or shat profusely along the aisles. of course, that wasn’t too bad, considering that the aisles were already flooded with their parents’ spit. and, throughout this “non-smoking” flight, all the smokers were huddled in the back smoking up a storm. the food gave me diarrhea, the water gave me nausea, and the alcohol was non-existent. all in all, a pleasant flight.

of course, it wouldn’t be an article on bangladesh without one major political party bashing the other. therefore we find that the present government has kindly saved the taxpayers $42,857 dollars per week over the past four years by cutting some of the stops, leading to a total savings of $8,914,285. however, this isn’t much, especially when you consider that, according to the measures they have taken, they will still make a loss of 17 lakh taka per week, which is $24,285. this is in addition to the $20,800,000 losses that they have already endured in their tenure. this means that, in their entire tenure, they will have lost a total of $21,431,410 on one single route.

if that isn’t a cry for help, i don’t know what is.

of mice and men

i’ve noticed lately that, during the day, i morph fully into my pro-private sector persona, leading to every other sentence from my mouth being some sort of praise of the bangladesh private sector, or, alternately, advocacy for further private sector development in bangladesh. i guess that’s natural when working for a thinktank that focuses on private sector development in bangladesh.

but i find this disturbing. while it’s a load of fun to complain about the inefficiencies of the government and civil servants in general, it concerns me to no end that they aren’t the most evil things on the face of the planet. take a look at the events of the past two days in bangladesh: a fire in a garments factory kills dozens, and the next day, a former garments factory building, being renovated into a hospital, collapses, killing dozens more.

now i’m not saying that the government is immune from blame for all this crap. there were definitely significant lapses on the part of the government, especially in terms of enforcement of building codes and inspections, but the lion’s share of the blame must go to the private sector, in both instances.

it turns out, in the case of the factory fire, that there was no fire exit anywhere in the building, and the escaping herds got to the main gate only to find it locked. now, surely, someone is to blame here. in my extensive experience with the bangladesh garments industry, i can safely assure you that fire escapes are a requirement that almost all garments buyers impose upon their producing partners. so where was the fire exit in this case?

the problem with bangladesh’s garments industry is that not all big firms work directly with the buyers. instead, they wait for another big firm to get a large order from a buyer, say, gap, and then subcontract for part of the work. the buyers themselves are fooled into thinking that the entire production is being accomplished by one firm alone, and as a result never try to enforce their guidelines on these smaller subcontracting firms. this, in essence, means that the subcontracting firm is not under any pressure to adhere to any of the guidelines that their larger compatriots are abiding by. thus the owners of the subcontracting firms are able to get away with anything – longer hours,

unsafe working conditions, substandard wages etc.

begin interlude

several years ago, when the garments boom first began in bangladesh, my family opened our own garments factory, based above our own house. i’ve spent a large part of my formative years living under a garments factory, and subsequently, i spent a lot of time working in the factory. our major buyer was a very small indian firm, who supplied garments to walmart (this was before walmart decided to establish their own buying operation in bangladesh). these buyers, who have since been pushed out of the market, had no labor or worker safety standards for its supplying firms. as a result, our garments factory never had any air vents installed. now, we all know that the thread residue from garments production is dangerous to the lungs. but, back then, we had no buyer pressure to have them installed.

i remember, almost ten years ago, that, when the first garments factory fires began erupting, we installed a fire escape for the workers. this was not because the buyers wanted it – rather, it was because we felt that it would be a good idea, and it would make things more secure for our workers, in case there was a fire in the factory.

when the fight against child labor in garments factories first began, my father was against it, and met with most of the champions of the initiative to convince them that removing children from garments factories did not necessarily mean that the kids went to schools, because their parents would put them into some other occupation, in order to get more money. rather, through their work in garments, they were in a safe working environment, and were earning money for their families. it seems that, with the rapid growth in the number of street children as well as child laborers, my father was right. once again, the buyers did not take much of a proactive stand on this issue. when the national garments association banned child labor in garments factories, we were one of the first factories to comply. my father even arranged for the admission of the former child workers into schools. within one year, 94% had dropped out and began working in other fields.

in the global recession that resulted from 9/11, our small factory unfortunately could not survive.

end interlude

however, it was only after 9/11 that the buyers took a stand and started enforcing guidelines for the garments factory owners to comply with. now, most large and successful garments factories have gone beyond compliance and have established their own labor practices that are quite amazing in nature. in addition, all major buyers have now agreed on a single code for compliance for garments firms, which is a big step in the positive direction. this is because, different buyers enforced different guidelines, and it became difficult for large firms to work for different buyers.

however, it is my sincere belief that, for every large garments factory that actually complies with buyer guidelines, another ten firms are small, subcontracting firms that never come into contact with the buyers and are therefore immune from their pressures on labor safety and standards. which completely opens the field for unsafe, dishonest practices. the owners of these firms are out to make a quick buck, and will stoop to any underhanded method necessary to save money. hence, we have garments factory workers roasted alive because of the lack of fire escapes, and we have garments factory buildings that are built so badly that they collapse on their own volition.

it’s unfair to blame just the garments factories and there owners for bad buildings. a recent survey found that, if an earthquake of moderate intensity were to strike dhaka say, tomorrow, over 50% of the high-rise buildings would collapse immediately. this includes most residential apartment buildings that have been built in the city over the past ten or fifteen years. basically, this means that almost 70-80% of the massive and growing population of dhaka are at risk from an earthquake measuring 5 or more on the richter scale. how long do we have till this happens? not very long, if recent geological trends are correct.

why, precisely, will these buildings all turn to dust very shortly? because the builders of these buildings have regularly skimped on safety standards, and have used substandard building materials to construct their skyscrapers, primarily because it cost them less that way.

another brief personal example: we own a house, built in 1965, and an apartment, built in 1995. the house, having endured more than 40 years of torture, including playing host to a garments factory for almost 10 years, has begun to develop cracks in the foundation. the apartment, having existed for a fraction of that time, has ironically begun to develop the same cracks in the foundation.

in this relentless pursuit of saving as much money as you can by doing business shabbily, it seems we’ve lost all track of what social welfare means to us as a race. hence we can get away with unsafe workplaces, unstable buildings and shady business practices, while putting the rest of our fellow bangladeshis at mortal risk. and once disaster strikes, we can simply hop on the next plane out of the country and

escape persecution for what is undoubtedly a crime.

one of the few members of the bangladesh business community that i admire recently told me, “i’m sick and tired of all this talk about corporate social responsibility, especially since nobody else adheres to it.” this from a man whose family constitute pioneers in the bangladesh leather products business, and who has personally ensured that their leather suppliers maintain high standards and use efficient effluent treatment in production, and who has revolutionized management’s relationship with the workers in their firm. however, this does not mean that he’s going to give up on his already sufficient practices. in fact, he is one of the few entrepreneurs in bangladesh who has found that good business practices, including good corporate social responsibility practices, can yield better results through better worker morale and higher productivity. sadly, most businessmen in bangladesh do not understand this equation in the least.

it’s also important here to note that the government isn’t completely innocent either. due to years of corruption and a lack of capacity to better regulate business, the bangladesh private sector has realized that it can easily get anything it wants just by greasing a few palms under the table. and, worst of all, this is an election year. therefore, i’m certain the politicians will take any opportunity they can to somehow blame each other for these disasters.

but, in the midst of all this hullabaloo, it is important to remember that these events are disasters, and that while some high and mighty private sector guru and some lowly corrupt government officials are to blame, the lives that have been lost have been those of innocent people who had little to do with their crimes.

so what, you may ask, is the solution to this crisis? what can we do in the short term to ensure that these things do not happen again? the answer, i’m afraid, is nothing. there are no short-term solutions to fix the problem, especially not with the elections looming on the horizon. instead, all approaches need to be long-term in nature. first, the capacity of the government needs to be built to enable them to enforce building codes and conduct inspections to monitor compliance with guidelines more regularly. some intelligent and highly paid people should undertake this, to eliminate any need for corruption. second, the government needs to act quickly and aggressively when it comes to violations, instead of letting them meander or letting them go in exchange for a quick bribe. thirdly, there needs to be some quick judicial action, that makes examples of some of the violators, thereby dissuading others from trying the same. in a nation where bad business practices are as rife as they are in bangladesh, the primary concern may be who to begin punishing. the only way to be successful is to begin with the most powerful, because the bigger they are, the harder they fall. needless to say, the punishment of violators must be accomplished without regard to any political bias whatsoever. if some of our “honorable” ministers end up in jail for putting others at mortal risk, they should be the first on the gallows, in my opinion.

finally, but most importantly, bring back some sense of ethics into our business practices. it should not be about making money faster than your neighbor. rather, it should be about bringing about as much of a positive impact upon the general public as possible with your money. start with your workers, and ensure that they are safe, educated and looked after. that way you can increase worker loyalty, reduce employee turnover, and increase efficiency and productivity. in essence, we need to drill the benefits of corporate social responsibility into the minds of every existing and prospective entrepreneur in bangladesh. it’s probably a good idea to work with young entrepreneurs – that way, when this new generation takes over from their parents, the lessons will be ingrained into their system already, and should be visible in their business practices.

so i’m therefore in a quandary. is further private sector development healthy for bangladesh? during office hours, i will agree wholeheartedly. only after work does the caution seep out and do i begin to feel that maybe that might not be such a good idea right now.


dhaka city looked beautiful last night.

now, i realize that such a statement can come as a shock to the dedicated readers of this blog, since one of my favourite pastimes over the last few months has been to bitch incessantly about the city. in fact, it’s a shock to me too. the last time i thought that the city was beautiful was on january 1, 2001, when i was returning home at dawn after a night of copious alcohol, riding a rickshaw through thick fog, watching the sun rise above the skyline, while being serenaded by the subtle melodies of a distant flute-player.

[side-note: for some reason, the most surreal moments in my life feature alcohol and music. see the post with the pictures. maybe i should be more drunk while listening to music from now on.]

anyway, as i was saying before i was so rudely interrupted by my brain, dhaka city looked beautiful last night. there was very little traffic, and parts of the streets were illuminated with different colored christmas lights, mixing with the soft neon glow of the multitudinous advertisements. the streets were virtually deserted, and the first sound that one heard upon stepping outside was not the irate honking of a thousand car horns, but rather the whistle of the wind through the trees. overall there was a feeling of calm, of eternal peace, and it seemed like dhaka had finally achieved a sense of nirvana

in contrast, dhaka today was positively ugly. the traffic jams were back. the christmas lights had multiplied to fill every single nook and cranny, making the streets look like some kid had overdosed on halloween candy and vomited it all out. car horns mingled with the drone of vehicle engines and the loud yells of the drivers, and the sidewalks were jam-packed with people who, as luck would have it, still seem to be suffering from whatever dementia keeps compelling them to walk down the middle of the roads.

i must admit, though, that things aren’t quite as bad as before, especially during the pre-eid hysteria. all except for the christmas lights.

when the entire nation is going through a power crisis, causing factories across the country to shut down, i don’t exactly see how the government can afford to drape every public building, tree and square inch of unoccupied roadside land with christmas lights. one must question the power consumption of these christmas lights, especially since the government banned the use of these exact same lights by shopping malls before eid (the ban, of course, did not extend to the government itself, which continued to festoon all its buildings with the damned things).

what precise purpose, i wonder, is served by decorating the roads with lights? i understand that the saarc summit is important, but are we trying to convince all the foreign delegates that dhaka always has a wild, extravagant party? frankly, i don’t see anything wrong with tidying up the city prior to the saarc summit. the part i have a problem with, however, is that the so-called dhaka beautification effort is strictly confined to the roads and areas that will be travelled by the foreign delegates, while other parts of dhaka lie undeveloped and uncleaned. how, precisely, does it benefit anybody if the airport road is bedecked with decorations, whereas a road in dhanmondi is jam-packed with traffic and overwhelmed by the stench of uncovered garbage?

all this reminds me of an article i read a while ago, back when beijing was bidding to host the olympics, and the municipal authority proceeded to cover up the slums by posting huge billboards in front of them. are we not guilty of an equally elaborate eyewash? are we not pretending to look much better than we really are? while attempting to host a summit where poverty eradication is the top item on the agenda, are we taking an ethical approach?

as i said before, the practice of beautifying the city for the saarc summit is a great idea. we must present the best face to our neighbors in order to maintain a certain amount of dignity and pride. in fact, considering that we’ve been adjudged the world’s most corrupt nation five years in a row, that we’re experiencing a boom in religiously-motivated terrorism, that we’re stuck in an endless loop of denouncing the previous administration and finding fault with the present one, and that our most frequent interaction with our closest neighbor is based around a game of who can kill illegal border-hoppers, we must attempt to salvage whatever dignity and pride that we can. not to mention the fact that, with increasing urbanization, greenery is quickly becoming extinct in the city.

rather, it is important that we learn some important lessons and practices from our experience with the preliminary arrangements for the summit.

first, dhaka city needs to be beautified, but such an effort cannot be confined to simply the vip roads that are used by the elite. the beautification effort needs to be coordinated, preferably in line with a long-term masterplan that will outline the development of all areas of the city. such a masterplan needs to be inclusive of not only beautification, but also infrastructure maintenance, so that all roads are properly paved and pothole-free. the masterplan should also consider the expansion of the most frequently used roads, and even incorporate the use of alternate routes and one-way streets. this is particularly necessary considering the massive expenditure that is being incurred through the development of flyovers and bypasses. dhaka city cannot afford to look a mid-nineteenth century slum anymore – rather, it should resemble the young metropolis of the twenty-first century that it really is.

second, the value of private sector involvement in any such effort cannot be ignored. the existing beautification has been largely spearheaded by the private sector, albeit in a disturbingly forceful way – in early 2005, the government told large companies that they had to take responsibility for the beautification, since it was part of their social and environmental responsibility to the community. while the approach itself may not be ideal, it illustrates two critical ideas: one, that the government lacked the resources to conduct an operation of this scale, but was not afraid to ask (or order) the private sector for their help; and two, that the private sector is actually willing to participate in such initiatives with a view to increasing sales through free advertisements. true, it does get boring seeing every square inch of road blocked off by dhaka bank and grameenphone ads, but at least there are trees and fresh air, and not just a growing cloud of vehicular smoke.

third, with the saarc summit looming on the horizon and the preparations in full swing, the government must realize that they have a valuable opportunity to make some positive changes, and that such an opportunity should not be squandered. approximately 30,000 more defense personnel are now posted in dhaka to ensure fool-proof security, and the perceived threat of these individuals, particularly of the army, can be used to maximum benefit to enforce laws that are seldom implemented. for instance, the armed contingent should team up with the anti-corruption commission, or whatever it’s being called these days, to apprehend the most corrupt officials and the people who bribe them. or the army can be deployed to punish violators of another golden international rule – when the traffic signal turns orange, prepare to stop. believe it or not, most people view the yellow signal as a sign to honk their horns louder, or accelerate faster, so that they can cross the intersection before it turns red. this is done even if the car is several cars behind the intersection. the fact of the matter is that dhakaites of every persuasion are equally afraid of the army, because they are notorious for being unbribable and brutal. i’m not asking the army to be brutal and ruthless and punish everybody of every imaginable crime; rather, i’m asking the government to use this inherent fear for the benefit of the country.

fourth, the massive security deployment has also reduced crime, because every criminal is too scared to leave his house. clearly, then, the existing police and law and order system isn’t working, since only the deployment of the army has been successful in reducing rampant crime. therefore, what is necessary and urgent is a complete restructuring of the police system. the police needs to be able to inspire a sense of fear in people, in order to deter people from committing crimes, and the current police force is too soft and too corrupt to do so. therefore, the police need suitable training and suitable incentives to actually do their jobs. there’s a lot of money available for this. my favourite donor organization (less interference, more practical projects) already has a program on police reform. instead of wasting their money buying armored vehicles for the police, this money should be spent on capacity building. better yet, the efforts of the police should be incentivized. most crimes should be tied to a fixed and definite fine structure, and a percentage of the fine for each offense should be given to the reporting officer. team-building initiatives to encourage police stations to compete amongst themselves in reducing crimes in their neighborhoods should also be put in place. in today’s world, where countries are now focusing on preventing crimes rather than punishing offenders, our situation is grim and needs serious reform.

finally, the most important lesson to learn from our experience is for the government to effectively practice what it preaches. banning the use of christmas lights in shopping malls while flagrantly using at least double the amount to light up specific city roads for five days presents exactly the wrong picture of the government to the private sector. the private sector wants a government that will facilitate its operations and will simplify the complexities of doing business, not a strict behemoth that simply regulates. the private sector wants a government that keeps its word, and not one that issues a directive that it violates itself; nor do they want a government that sets a specific policy that is discontinued as soon as the next batch of politicians take the helm. in a country where trust is a precious commodity, the people need to be able to trust in the government, and it’s definitely sad to see that the government is not making this a priority.

last night, while driving through dhaka, i thought i had arrived in a modern and beautiful city somewhere in europe. that’s something that’s easy to imagine. it’s important today that everybody realize that it’s also not too difficult to implement.